Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Hercules Rockefeller and Other Paragons of Masculinity

Not too long ago, an article on the strange, sad life of Rock Hudson went up at The Hairpin, and while Hudson’s story merits the time it takes to tell it, my takeaway was Henry Willson, the Hollywood superagent, talent scout and peenhound who created the actor’s public persona. Even given Hudson’s sad end, he stands out as one of the most successful Hollywood Frankensteins that Willson plucked from obscurity and then rebuilt them head-to-toe into something more marquee-friendly, more deserving of the affection of the American public. This process often necessitated a rechristening, and Wilson seemed to have very specific ideas about what a masculine movie star name sounded like. I mean, consider Roy Harold Fitzgerald, the Midwestern boy that Wilson transformed into, to borrow The Hairpin’s phrasing, the “Ken doll with a dye job” who is remembered today as Rock Hudson.

rock, but it could just as easily be any of the other men on this list

Here are all the Willson dreamboats I could find, ordered by the increasing macho ridiculousness of their names:
  • Nicholas Aloysius Adamshock became Nick Adams, which is actually a fairly sensible shortening.
  • Gail Shilkles became Craig Stevens — and for the better, I’d say.
  • Raymon Lee Cramton became Chad Everett.
  • Norman Eugene Walker became Clint Walker.
  • Armand Joseph Catalano became the far blander-sounding Guy Williams, though with that name he at least starred in the TV series Zorro and Lost in Space.
  • Carmen Orrico is today known as John Saxon, and with that name he’s racked up a few notable horror credits, including A Nightmare on Elm Street, Tenebrae and the original Black Christmas. But according to a few sites, like this one, he narrowly avoided being given the name Rand Saxon.
  • Merle Johnson became Troy Donahue. (And, by the way, Donahue along with a Willson creation who didn’t change his name, Doug McClure, are the sources of the name of Simpsons character Troy McClure, who stars in “rained out ballgame”-style B-movies inspired by the the kind of movies the actors on this list appeared in.)
  • Francis Timothy McCown became Rory Calhoun, the western star whose name, when entered into the Google search box, calls up that one Simpsons reference rather quickly in the list of frequent searches.
  • Robert Ozell Moseley — a man born in a California town whose name, while we’re on the subject, is Pumpkin Center — became Guy Madison. (Madison, by the way is sited in this Salon article as the slab o’ man that inspired the term beefcake.)
  • Arthur Andrew Kelm became Tab Hunter, the soda pop who shoots deer.
  • Earl Carver became Cal Bolder, which pretty much gets to the hart of Willson’s renaming process.
  • James Westmoreland was saddled with the very awkward Rad Fulton, though he later reverted to his original name and continued acting.
  • Orison Whipple Hunderford became Ty Hardin, which, yes, sounds like a porn name, and an obvious one at that.
  • John Papiro was transformed into the weirdly white power-sounding Race Gentry.
  • And, finally, Norman Jay Rambeau was given the name that The Hairpin calls out as the worst (also the best): Dack Rambo. Apparently Willson had run out of one-syllable names that sounded butch enough and had simply decided to make them up. (Dack, by the way, had a twin brother — “TWINS!!!” is what Willson surely said one slow afternoon at the docks — named Orman Ray, whom Willson renamed Dirk Rambo. This other brother died young, however.)
I’m sure there are others. (In fact, I know there are: I can’t find enough information on Chance Gentry or Chance Nesbitt to determine who they were before Willson got his hands on them.) But with the exceptions of Rory Calhoun and Troy Donahue, each name fits the pattern of single-syllable first name plus double-syllable last name. I don’t know why that screams “American movie-going market” exactly, but I suppose there is something inherently manly in that first monosyllabic strike — like a punch to the gut or the firing of a gun — that suggests the brute force of a man of action. It also tends to sound Germanic, as opposed to the flowing three- and four-beat names more typical of Italian or Spanish names. And the last names evoke some combination of ruggedness or general Americanness or both. It’s pretty obvious to see, especially today, but that’s not to sat that people couldn’t see through the names even back then. According to this article, Kaye Ballard suggested four more that Willson could add to the stable: “Grid Iron, Cuff Links, Plate Glass and Bran Muffin.”

I’d be lying if I said things weren’t different today. Actors get to keep their awkward names, and some are even born with names that sound like the product of a focus group spitballing in an underventilated conference room. (It annoys me to no end that we have a moderately famous person named Channing Tatum now.) One thing I can say for sure: Henry Willson would have loved Heath Ledger.

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